The Victorian practice of ‘Wife-Selling’ will be the subject of a talk by Lauren Padgett, Assistant Curator for Bradford Museums and Galleries.
The talk will be held at Bradford Industrial Museum on Sunday 10 March 1pm to 2.15pm to celebrate International Women’s Day.
The history talk at the Bradford Council-run museum will introduce the folk custom of wife-selling by tracing it through 19th century literary references and pictorial representations.
It will analyse historical cases of wife-selling in Victorian Bradford and Yorkshire to explore the cause, customs and culture around such practice. It will also ask – Was wife-selling a cruel ‘British scandal’ or did this ‘British Institution’ give some Victorian women a means to free themselves from unhappy marriages?
Between the late seventeenth and the early-nineteenth century, Wife-Selling in England was a way of ending an unsatisfactory marriage by mutual agreement when divorce was practically impossible for all but the very rich.
Wife selling provides the background to the Thomas Hardy novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, where the main character sells his wife at the start of the story. This haunts him for the rest of his life and eventually destroys him.
While there are a couple of cases of wives been sold without their consent, the vast majority of sold wives were willing participants as they saw the sale as a way out of an unhappy marriage.
For the husband the sale released him from his marital duties, including the financial responsibility for his wife, and for the buyer, who was often the wife’s lover, it freed him from the threat of legal action by the husband.
The average man could not afford an annulment or private divorce and a cheaper alternative was to separate through the process of a public sale.
In poor districts, a wife was considered a chattel to be bought and sold like any other commodity.
Coun Sarah Ferriby, Executive Member for Healthy People and places, said: “I am delighted that this talk highlighting this interesting aspect of women’s history is part of the programme celebrating this year’s International Women’s Day.
“The talk challenges the misconception that women in history were purely passive subjects and shows that in reality, many of the women taking part in wife-selling, were active agents in the process and that this was something that empowered them.”
Lauren Padgett, Assistant Curator of Industrial and Social History at Bradford Council, said: “The folk custom of wife-selling is fascinating and yet it is a lesser known aspect of women’s history. In the eyes of those who practiced wife-selling and in the communities that upheld this tradition, it was an alternative method of ending one marriage and starting another.
“Today we may think that this is a cruel and brutal act, but reports of the sales tell us that women were willing participants and active agents. One may assume it was a medieval custom but it was practiced well into the late nineteenth-century with a few cases in the early twentieth-century, commonly in industrialised towns like Bradford.
“My talk will look at various representations of the custom and explore some cases of wife-selling in Bradford and around Yorkshire to bring to light this unusual aspect of women’s history.”
Limited spaces are available for this talk to reserve a space call 01274 435900.
The talk and entry to the museum is free, but donations are always welcome and appreciated.